Next up, lets take a look at one of the most competitive divisions in the league; the NFC South.
The Falcons secured a 1st round bye in 2012, and entered 2013 with high expectations. Atlanta fans may have felt very good about their chances, but there was a consensus among analytical minds that the Falcons got fairly lucky in 2012, and were not as strong of a team as their 13-3 record would indicate. Unsurprisingly, they struggled in 2013, but they also had some very bad luck with injuries. LT Sam Baker and WR Julio Jones were both lost for the season by the end of week 5, dooming their season to failure. While the defense was very poor, I felt one of the biggest reasons for this regression was the refusal to upgrade a poor offensive line. The Falcons struggled to run the ball, and more importantly, protect Matt Ryan.
Initially, I was very disappointed with the Falcons approach in free agency. The market was deep at OT, and with ample cap room, I expected them to go after one of the top free agents at the position. Instead they chose to sign a decent OG in Jon Asomoah, and focused more on rebuilding their DL by throwing quite a bit of money at DL Tyson Jackson and NT Paul Solai. Both of these guys are strong against the run, but their salaries are a bit pricey for their lack of contribution as pass rushers, especially Jackson.
My concerns were alleviated when they snapped up OT Jake Matthews with the #6 pick in the draft. Taylor Lewan may have a higher ceiling, but the Falcons offense is built to be great right now, and Matthews was undeniably the most NFL-ready LT prospect in this draft. Matt Ryan will have a much nicer pocket to throw from this year, which will more than ease the loss of TE Tony Gonzalez. It’s even possible that Gonzalez un-retires midseason if the team is in contention.
With their 2nd round pick the Falcons continued to revamp their DL, selecting DT Rashede Hageman, potentially a massive steal. He had the highest upside of any DT in the draft, boasting the ability to eat up double teams and disrupt the pocket as a pass rusher. Most of their remaining 7 picks were spent on LB’ers, a position where they severely lacked depth after the injury to ILB Sean Weatherspoon. 2013 may have been extremely underwhelming, but the additions the Falcons made this offseason have improved the roster at all the needed positions. If the NFC South wasn’t so tough, I’d declare this team a lock to return to the playoffs. Grade: A-
While the Panthers were a surprisingly strong team in 2013, their roster has endured quite a bit of turnover. Almost their entire secondary is gone, with 4 of their top 5 players in snap counts allowed to walk. Every WR who caught a pass from Cam Newton in 2013 is gone. LT Jordan Gross retired, and OG Travelle Wharton has moved onto Minnesota. All in all, that is over 7400 snaps from 2013 that will be replaced by new players.
The Panthers began the offseason by franchising DE Greg Hardy, which ate up most of their cap room and limited them to cheap value signings. Surprisingly, they were able to make some nice additions; at WR they picked up Jason Avant, Jerricho Cotchery, and Tiquan Underwood for a total of just $3.6M. Avant and Cotchery are solid veteran possession receivers, something the Panther offense sorely lacked last year. Underwood has decent physical ability and can occasionally stretch a defense. In the secondary they added safeties Thomas DeCoud and Roman Harper, and CB Antoine Cason. DeCoud is the only guy here with a chance to be an above average player, but again, these were very cost effective signings that totaled just $3.5M.
In the draft they picked up WR Kelvin Benjamin with their 1st pick, giving the receiving corps a much needed big play threat. He is extremely raw, but there is no questioning his physical talent, which makes him a legitimate threat on screen passes and fades alone. In the 2nd they picked up powerful DE Kony Ealy, adding to what is already one of the scariest DL’s in the league. OG Trai Turner in the 3rd was very solid value, and he will contribute right away as a mauling run blocker. I’m a little disappointed that the Panthers were unable to find a replacement for Jordan Gross at LT, but lack of cap room and a late draft slot can severely limit the options a team has. Considering their extremely rough state of affairs, this was a very impressive offseason for the Panthers. Grade: A-
New Orleans Saints:
Even though Jimmy Graham received a TE designation instead of WR under the franchise tag, the Saints had very little remaining cap room. Despite this, they were able to sign the top free agent on the market, FS Jairus Byrd. Byrd is a fantastic addition for the aggressive style of defense DC Rob Ryan likes to run, as he will sit in center field while the Saints corners play up in the faces of opposing receivers. Their only other significant free agent signing will fit into this scheme nicely; CB Champ Bailey. Bailey is well past his prime and showed signs of severe regression last season, but he was battling injury so it is possible he bounces back for a decent performance as a #2 corner this year.
The Saints biggest move in the draft was trading up for WR Brandin Cooks, an explosive slot receiver. I wasn’t sure how soon Cooks would come off the board since his size somewhat limits where he can line up on the field, but I will never doubt the offensive combination of Drew Brees and coach Sean Payton. If they think Cooks was worth trading up for, then he will be a big threat for opposing defenses. With their 2nd pick, the Saints took CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste, a big body corner with impressive measurables. He displays some aptitude for press coverage, but there are definitely weaknesses; stiff hips, poor in run support, and susceptibility to double-moves. He seems like a slight reach in the 2nd round, but Rob Ryan will likely get the best play possible out of him.
With such a strong roster, the Saints didn’t have many areas of need, and are gambling pretty big on the additions of Byrd and Cooks to vault them back into the Super Bowl. I generally don’t approve of such strategy, but these seem like quality gambles at the perfect spots for this team. Grade: B
Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
It was a high profile offseason for the Bucs, most notably firing coach Greg Schiano and replacing him with Cover 2 guru Lovie Smith. He’s definitely not one of the better player evaluators in the league, but you can expect that star studded defense to play better than it did last year. They got rid of star CB Darrelle Revis and his enormous contract, replacing him with a great player in Alterraun Verner at an extremely reasonable price. I’m actually still quite shocked that Verner signed for just 4 years $26M, when the rest of the market was signing similar valued players at around 4/35 or more. That said, Verner seems like a slightly strange signing since he is best in man coverage; perhaps Lovie Smith will run more of a hybrid rather than exclusive Cover 2 this year?
While Verner represents the Bucs most valuable addition, QB Josh McCown is the most controversial. He had an extremely impressive season in Chicago last year, so impressive that it seems like somewhat of a fluke. He has always been a solid backup, but has never approached numbers like he did last season. Additionally, they have a young QB in Mike Glennon who showed some promise last year. The Bucs have been wavering in their support of Glennon this offseason, with rumors of attempts to trade him. As it stands now, McCown will be the opening day starter, with Glennon waiting in the reigns. The transition shouldn’t be too difficult for McCown, as he goes from having two towering receivers in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery…to two towering receivers in Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans.
I didn’t love the selection of Evans since he is so similar to Jackson, but reports seem to indicate that McCown was lobbying for another big receiver as he felt extremely comfortable with the resulting matchups in Chicago. In the second round they took another big body, TE Austin Sefarius-Jenkins. This seemed like a pretty big reach, as ASJ does not have big play ability, is somewhat raw, and there are already two decent TE’s on the roster in Tim Wright and Brandon Myers. The 3rd round saw the Bucs take RB Charles Sims, a guy with good ability as a runner and receiver. While he is pretty decent value at this draft slot, I wonder if this is a luxury pick since they already have a workhorse RB in Doug Martin.
It’s always tough to predict how players on a roster will be used in the event of a change in regime such as here, but the Bucs have a lot of talent and seem to have established a floor of QB production with McCown. I expect them to compete for the playoffs and division this year. Grade: B-